On MSNBC's "Jansing & Co." Tuesday, liberal journalist Carl Bernstein criticized the continued stance of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) against the right of public unions to collectively bargain. The liberal Watergate journalistic "legend" labeled the governor's efforts as "ahistorical" and "demagogic."
When the governor cut into benefits and pensions of state employees to solve a budget shortfall, union members and supporters of their cause took to the streets of the state capital. Later they were willing to compromise on the amount they had to pay for their benefits, but they demanded to keep their collective bargaining ability. The governor was not willing to cut that deal.
Bernstein said Gov. Walker's move went beyond his own prudence, calling it a "very political, demagogic move by a governor who knows that the Democratic Party subsists to some extent on union contributions." He even called out conservatives for making too many issues into partisan battles.
"We are making every issue in this country – particularly the right-wing and the Republican Party – part of an ideological war," Bernstein lectured. "It's time we've got to find some middle ground on these questions."
Former Rep. Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.) got into a mildly heated exchange with Bernstein over the matter. Lazio was paired with the liberal Bernstein and Alicia Menendez of the New Democrat Network on the panel, hosted by MSNBC's Chris Jansing -- not exactly the most balanced panel. When Bernstein lamented that the issue had become a partisan, political issue, and that unions deserved to collectively bargain, Lazio retorted that "somebody's got to pay the bill."
Why did Lazio stand against collective bargaining? "Because in part people make multi-year commitments when they're in political office to get their political support, binding the next administration and the people to come to unsustainable increases in pensions and payments," he argued. Bernstein noted that "every municipality in America has re-negotiated" pensions and such.
A transcript of the segment, which aired on February 22 at 10:32 a.m. EST, is as follows:
CHRIS JANSING: A lot of people are saying this is the moment of truth, Carl, for the unions. Norman Adler, a longtime lobbyist for unions, told Politico – I'm going to quote him here – "Whatever happens in Wisconsin, this is going to be replicated elsewhere. The unions can't back off of this – it would be like hiking up a white flag." Is he right?
CARL BERNSTEIN, contributing editor, Vanity Fair magazine: Well yeah, he's right. First of all, there's kind of an ahistoricism that's taking place in Wisconsin, which is to deny the contributions of unions to the lives of working class people in this country. Virtually all of the job security, working conditions, good wages for workers, minimum wage come from the union movement in the 20th century. Less than fourteen percent of the workforce is now in unions, seven percent of them are in public service, public employee unions, and these people deserve the right to have collective bargaining. They're willing to re-negotiate their pensions, but workers ought to have the right to collective bargaining. It's a basic right that they've always enjoyed. This is also a very political, demagogic move by a governor who knows that the Democratic Party subsists to some extent on union contributions. It's their biggest source of money, they want to cut it off at the knees, they see an opportunity here, and they utterly forget the role of unions in helping people in this country.
JANSING: But he's also a governor who, you know, by that statistic, knows that there's 86 percent of the people who are not union members who are looking at where the budget can be balanced – is it a smart political move on his part, Rick?
RICK LAZIO: The wage hikes and the pension and other benefit increases that other employees have been getting is out of alignment with what people are getting in the private sector for the same exact jobs. And the people who are making 10 and 15 and 20 thousand dollars a year don't want to pay more taxes for people that are getting six figure public pensions. It's just wrong.
BERNSTEIN: What does it have to do with the right to collective bargaining? The unions are willing to negotiate – re-negotiate pensions. Everybody in America who works in a municipality knows that these pensions, which were given to workers in flush times, need to be adjusted.
LAZIO: But they're not doing it, Carl! Thery're not doing it!
BERSTEIN: Yes they are. Every municipality in America has re-negotiated.
LAZIO: All these guys – all the public employee-employees – public employee-employees need to go to a defined-contribution 401(k) style plan. That's the reality of where we need to go – if we're ever going to have the money –
BERNSTEIN: What's it have to do with denying their right to bargain?
LAZIO: It's a question of whether public employees who already (Unintelligible) have almost universal job security. How many people in this long recession who are public employees have lost their jobs? Almost none. How many people on the private side – the taxpayers – have lost their jobs? Six or seven million people.
BERNSTEIN: Why shouldn't a majority of workers be able to take a vote in an enterprise to affiliate with a union?
LAZIO: Fine, collect your own money then! Don't ask the government to collect money for you, only to use that money for lobbying to increase the spending and the benefits for public employees.
BERNSTEIN: All those questions are legitimate if you allow collective bargaining. That's what negotiating and collective bargaining is about.
BERNSTEIN: We are making every issue in this country – particularly the right-wing and the Republican Party – part of an ideological war. It's time we've got to find some middle ground on these questions. Something as basic as with a small number of people – and look, everybody knows, particularly with police and fire pensions – are breaking cities in some cases. And mayors are dying to get those renegotiated, but almost every negotiation that has taken place in the last ten years, there have been renegotiations for pensions. What we're talking about here is an attempt to break what's left of the union movement and throw it into this left-right divide without any willingness to look at the history of this country in terms of what unions do, in terms of the contributions they make to families, to job securities, and to what they've won in the past.
LAZIO: But somebody's got to pay the bill, Carl.
BERNSTEIN: Nobody's arguing – nobody's arguing that. What does that have to do with collective bargaining?
BERNSTEIN: When I was a member of a union – I've been on many collective bargaining committees, on many negotiating committees. What in the world is so scary about collective bargaining in which workers are able to negotiate with their employers?
JANSING: We've got to let that be the last word –
LAZIO: Because in part people make multi-year commitments when they're in political office to get their political support, binding the next administration and the people to come to unsustainable increases in pensions and payments.
BERNSTEIN: That's more – what you're saying though, that it's wrong to fairly and honestly have a negotiation.
LAZIO: What I'm saying – what Walker is saying, anyway, is every year renew the contract, year by year. And we're not talking about private labor unions, by the way. We're only talking about public employee unions. That's an important distinction, because you see many of the private – the private unions are on the sideline on this battle, because they feel like they're paying the taxes and they're sacrificing jobs by not – by seeing this ever-increasing compensation for public employee unions.
BERNSTEIN: Other unions have done the same thing. They've re-negotiated their contracts.